By Tracy McNew
Water is everywhere and absolutely necessary for life. In fact, water is something that most of us take for granted. If our pipes freeze it’s a major problem, but imagine not having access to clean water at all, or having to haul it from a community spring twice daily using buckets balanced on your head. For Libby’s George Gerard, he doesn’t need to imagine this. He has seen it up close and personal during his more than 12 trips to Guatemala, while visiting at least five different neighborhoods over the past 12 years.
The CDC estimates that worldwide, 780 million people don’t have access to an improved water source for adequate hygiene and sanitation, and that providing this could prevent at least 9% of global diseases and 6% of deaths. Given that statistic, Gerard is likely responsible, at least in part, for saving lives. He has certainly improved them, helping bring water to around 4,000 people in Guatemala since his adventure began.
In 2007, Gerard was president of the Libby Rotary club. Rotary International was focusing on eradicating Polio and on water projects at the time, so he and the club’s board decided to pursue a water project. Little did he know, that decision would begin a 15 year commitment.
Fellow Rotarian, Eileen Carney had connections in Guatemala so she reached out, they made a trip to visit the area, they connected with a local Rotary club, and soon the club’s first water project was born. According to Gerard, “That project ended in failure.”
He and others quickly learned that international relationships, business priorities, language barriers, politics, grant requirements, and all manner of stumbling blocks would need to be overcome. They weren’t able to complete their first water project for many of these reasons, but they carried on, and in 2010 they completed three small water projects with that grant money which repaired existing water systems that were damaged by a tropical storm.
With experience under his belt, Gerard then took on a bigger project. He wrote the grant himself and raised the money needed to match grant funds with his personal donation, gifts from friends and family, and from the donations of a few others who heard about what he was doing and wanted to support him.
The project, after much work, provided not only clean water, but a distribution network throughout the town of San Juan Maza. It impacted about 1,200 people, and when it was completed, the community held a big celebration in honor of Gerard and others who helped.
“It brought tears to my eyes,” Gerard said when telling the story. “The chairman of the community council broke down while he was thanking us. He had promised his father before he died, that he’d get water to the village, and his promise had become a reality.”
Another woman at the same event grabbed Carney in a great big bear hug and just wouldn’t let go. They were just so thankful, Gerard said.
During his second term as club president in 2015, Gerard went to a training, and knowing that his club couldn’t afford to do big projects like this alone, he began talking to others about it. He formed relationships, told people about the projects and their impact, drove over 5,000 miles visiting clubs across the state, and eventually asked for and got more support.
A second club joined in his efforts, and soon a third, fourth, and fifth club joined too. With leadership from Gerard, a Global Coalition was formed that now includes ten clubs, each giving $30 per member per year so that matching funds are available for the grants needed to continue the work.
Most recently, the coalition has been working on projects in the communities of El Progresso, Pasac, and La Vega, Guatemala. They have partnered with Engineers without Borders for design, in country logistical support and financial assistance, and FundAzucar, an organization funded by sugarcane producers in Guatemala, is contributing too.
A sustainable system has been set in place, both for water supplies and for ongoing work to keep helping other communities access clean water. Kalispell clubs are now working to write the next grant, and others Rotarians have taken responsibility for communications, financial obligations and the like, but Gerard plans to stay involved.
“This is probably the most gratifying work I’ve ever been involved in,” he said. “At the same time, it can be the most frustrating too, but there are people in the club in Guatemala that truly love me. And two of them even call me dad.”
Gerard said that if there is a take away message from his experience, it’s that the work isn’t easy or fast, but one person really can make a big difference with perseverance and the support of others who care. Friendships, he said, have been the most important and the most gratifying part of what he has accomplished.